Wednesday, August 31, 2011

D&D Cures World Hunger; Global Disease is Next

I enjoy articles where folks take the implied D&D setting out to its logical conclusions.  What do the cool kids here in the blogosphere say?  "D&D is Always Right".  Well, when you think that through for a half second, opportunities to rationalize D&D start to creep up… why are copper pieces 1/10th of a pound - the size of tea saucers, or why sell torches when continual light spells exist?  It can be fun trying to explain D&Disms in your setting.

This article, Post Scarcity Fantasy*, is an entertaining stroll through such problems.  The author presents a sample D&D medieval town (Faustville) and applies D&D magic to mundane problems.  In short order, we see that the level of magic in a good-sized town provides universal healthcare, eliminates infant mortality, ends crime, ends hunger, and provides a life of leisure for all.  Forget about 21st century America, I want to live in a D&D setting.

I would submit that the affect of magic on the world is a campaign setting ACID TEST; it's something a setting creator needs to address for the setting to make sense.  If the writer is going to use Medieval or Renaissance assumptions about the world, he or she needs to explain why there are mundane problems in a setting plentiful with clerics.  In the AD&D 1E system, for instance, the bar to be a cleric is fairly low (9 wisdom?)  Clerics should be everywhere.  The Faustville article uses the 3.5 era demographics, which explicitly support a magic rich world.

There are some straightforward solutions; the easiest is to make NPC magic rare, and ban all the troublesome spells, like the LOTFP approach (James Raggi's Weird Fantasy Roleplaying).

I like the ACKS (Adventurer Conqueror King) approach; sure, there are classed characters everywhere, but the demographics severely limit the levels of those classed characters according to the required XP factors (which mirror the economic system).You can read the full bit here - The Demographics of Heroism.  If you apply the chart below to all classes, you can see there shouldn't be enough higher level clerics to stop an aggressive epidemic.  In addition, the size of a settlement dictates the base chance that NPC spell casters are even available; a village might have a caster up to 4th level per the demographics chart, but the chance is further broken down to 50% for a level 1 caster, 33% for a level 2 caster, 15% for level 3, and only 5% for a 4th level caster in a large village.

Demographics Chart, from ACKS:
0th: Most able-bodied humans
1st: 1 in 12 – The best in an extended family
2nd: 1 in 40 – The best in an estate or hamlet
3rd: 1 in 100 – The best in a tiny barony or village
4th: 1 in 200 – The best in a small barony or large village
5th: 1 in 500 – The best in a barony or large village
6th: 1 in 2,000 – The best in a march or town
7th: 1 in 6,000 – The best in a county
8th: 1 in 10,000 – The best in county
9th: 1 in 30,000- The best in a small duchy or big city
10th: 1 in 100,000 – The best in a duchy
11th: 1 in 500,000 – The best in a principality
12th: 1 in 1 million  – The best in a small kingdom or large principality
13th: 1 in 2,500,000 – The best in a kingdom
14th: 1 in 7,750,000 – The best in an empire

I eat the dog food; spell casting clerics are rare in Gothic Greyhawk, and that has made the party's cleric a traveling celebrity like some kind of Biblical prophet; distrusted by institutional religions and beloved by the common folk for his healing prowess.  We'll be using the ACKS domain rules and adopting the Demographics of Heroism assumptions, as they support quick calculations and pass the sniff test on describing a model for NPCs and power levels across realms.

Spending energy to explain why magic hasn't changed the D&D world from the Medieval assumptions begs the question:  Why don't the collective we (D&D players and Dungeon Masters alike) develop settings like Faustville that substitute magic for high technology?

*I just started reading a blog called Monsters and Manuals and actually found the link cross-posted there; it's remarkable how many giant D&D blogs are still out there that I'm just discovering.  Ever feel the same way?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Race for the Demonomicon

The brass bound Demonomicon of Iggwilv is the definitive treatise on demons and demon summoning, containing the formulae for new clerical and magical spells, descriptions of various demonic entities, and names for contacting the demon princes.  There were once 6 copies of the Demonomicon, but they were lost centuries ago and knowledge of these rare summoning techniques passed from the world.  A mortal wizard rediscovering this forbidden lore would wield power unknown in the modern age.

The Demonomicon was introduced to AD&D as part of module S4, The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth.  In the published adventure, rumors reach the civilized lands about the ruined lair of the notorious witch Iggwilv, and the player characters head out on a massive wilderness quest trying to find the hidden mountain cave.

I'm going to up the ante for Gothic Greyhawk.  The forces of Chaos that have stirred in the land have heard the rumors of the Demonomicon's location and dispatched an otherworldly task force to retrieve the book.  Powerful factions across the world take note and mobilize their own teams.  Angels whisper warnings into the dreams of the Patriarchs of Veluna and The Pale; the Court of Faeries dispatches a powerful Sidhe Lord to the mortal realm to lead the Wild Hunt; somewhere on the 333rd lair of the Abyss, the Demon Prince Orcus shifts on his throne of bloodstone and smiles.  Soon mortal wizards would be able, once more, to open a direct way to his Realm of Undeath, and mortal wizards are so very easy to corrupt.

Making the adventure a race between all these supernatural factions should be a hoot.

I'll be working out who are these nefarious factions over the next few weeks in the blog space, as part of my game prep - I'll definitely reach out to the readers for some ideas as well.  There should be plenty of intrigue.  Thus far in the campaign, the group has made allies with one of the Fey (opening a fey crossing for a Sidhe noble named the Lady of Dawn); Mordecai had a liaison with a devil-worshiping witch before atoning and rededicating himself to the Eternal Spirit.  However, he doesn't have any strong formal ties to the Church yet, and none of the magic users have any strong ties to the known magical colleges.  The players should have some interesting choices whether they ally with any of these groups.

I'm assuming that when the players hear about the widespread hunt for the book, they'll throw their own hat in the ring and join the chase.  One of the campaign's stated goals was to get the opportunity to engage in the legendary high level adventures of classic Greyhawk.  What self-respecting player wouldn't want to claim a legendary tome like the Demonomicon?

The area for this part of the campaign will be set up as a massive hex crawl covering a large swath of the Barrier Peaks and Crystalmist Mountains in Greyhawk (I'll be relocating the Lost Caverns a bit).  Such an expedition will present planning and logistical challenges, along with the threat of competition.  It'll be  like Indiana Jones and the World of Darkness.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Critiquing the Dungeon Master

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?   
And how should I presume?
--The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

"Hands up, those of you who would care to learn to be a better DM by running the game in an auditorium full of well-meaning critics who were encouraged to shout at you during your presentation.  Mind you, I said "well-meaning" ... not trolls anxious to put you off your game, but persons who have legitimate, well-founded oppositions to what you're trying to do."

This is a quote from The Tao of D&D blog, and it cuts to the heart of whether there is any way to learn the techniques of the referee or dungeon master.  The starting point for such a discussion must necessarily clear the hurdle that there are thousands of games, at thousands of table tops, and no one has any direct experience for comparing one set of techniques to another. (Clarification:  This is a restatement of Alexis's arguments; for myself, I'm quite happy to learn what I can via blog posts and internet discussions; the following idea of using old school pod casts is still quite intriguing).

The topic has been broached before; I remembered an older post from Zak's place that discussed similar issues in the context of testing RPG theory.  There are actual play podcasts where you can hear different table top techniques in action.  Zak's post is here:  Getting Around The Uncertainty Principle.  One of the line's that sticks out for me is this one:

"GMing advice? A recording's worth a thousand words. I would LOOOOOVE to hear side-by-side recordings of (say) James Raggi, James Mal, and Jeff Rients all running the same module for their respective groups."

I don't listen to Actual Play podcasts, or even know which ones exist.  But it would be an interesting experiment to see a few of the blogosphere's luminaries listen to the same podcast and come back with suggestions on what worked, and how they'd do things differently.  Does anyone have a recommendation for an Actual Play podcast that is fairly well recorded?  I daresay, I'm not interested in running a game in front of Alexis's auditorium full of (well-meaning) critics.  I'm the first to admit there's room for my improvement in my game.

My own standard of the successful DM is quite simple, and the bar is low.  Did the DM enjoy the experience such that he feels it is worth repeating and will run the game the next time?  Did the players find the game enjoyable and deem it worth showing up next time as well?  If the answer is yes on both counts, you're successful.  There may be things you want to do better, but there will be future games.  I can think of many games that crashed and burned and were abandoned by the DM, and many players that played once and never came back.  For a hobbyist performer, getting the next booking is really the only important measure.

Mythic Monday: The Vampire

Is there a traditional monster that's been more abused by popular culture than the vampire?  The most feared supernatural villain of the 19th century is now a staple of teen romance novels.  Although it pains me to admit it,  Lovecraft has jumped the shark almost as badly; I'd say Cthulhu Plushy Dolls and Innsmouth Swim Team T-Shirts give the Twilight Saga a run for it's money as 'worst emasculation of a nightmare'.

The vampire was once the embodiment of evil; an evil spirit returned from the dead to plague its loved ones as a blood-drinking corpse.   Nowadays, the typical vampire has become the object of teen romance, combining sexuality, Freudian imagery, and the allure of easy immortality.

Not all the modern interpretations are awful; I've seen a few good ones; I liked the premise of 30 Days of Night, and I liked the idea of plague vampires in I Am Legend.  I haven't gotten the chance to read Guillermo Del Toro's Strain.  Anyone read it?  I loved last year's movie Let Me In - the movie is probably worth a review - it's one of my favorite vampire movies.

However, I both loathe and love the representation of the vampire in D&D.

The D&D vampire has various quirky powers and vulnerabilities that call to mind elements of the folklore - things like aversion to garlic and holy symbols, powers like the charming gaze, summon animals, and the shape changing, and excellent representations of the literary vampire's Energy Level Drain attack.  Actually, I'm lying.  Literary vampires don't Drain Life Energy and cause loss of levels, they drink blood.  The D&D vampire is retarded.

The old timer discussion board are full of blather about Positive and Negative energy and Inner Planes and different justifications for energy draining undead and clerical turning; the bottom line for me - the Positive/Negative planes are neat house rule ideas that should have stayed in someone's home campaign and not been institutionalized into AD&D as part of the official cosmology.

I understand why Energy Drain works from a game perspective.  Early adventures were all about kicking in doors and attacking the monsters; the typical monster is only on the stage briefly before exploding in a shower of XP.  It needs to show up and perform its trick quickly before it gets wasted.  A level-draining vampire spikes the tension in a way few monsters can match; the D&D vampire hits hard, drains levels, regenerates, and can turn PC's against each other with its gaze.

But it leaves some things to be desired compared to the folkloric and literary vampire.  Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra, as zero-level humans, are barely a snack for a D&D vampire.  The D&D vampire must be permanently frustrated; all those zero-level humans he touches shrivel into energy-drained husks.  Heck, why does the D&D vampire even bother with fangs?  Here is what I picture when I think of the D&D vampire:

The standard D&D Vampire (via Lifeforce)
I remember thinking Lifeforce was the dumbest vampire movie ever made, when I was what - 17?  Space vampires come to earth flying in a comet, only there isn't a fang in sight.  It's probably worth another viewing, 25+ years later, to watch it without any preconceived notions.  Plus it had lots of scenes with a beautiful naked alien chick walking around.

To distance myself from the Lifeforce experience, I'm going to add a new type of vampire in Gothic Greyhawk.  I'll leave the Lifeforce-esque energy-draining vampire as is, and make that the type of vampire that haunts dungeons and pops out of dark corners to terrorize the players with the threat of energy drain - and maybe they'll ditch the fangs and I'll even let them use the life-force sucking like the movie, played up for its campiness.  The standard vampire still has a good combat role and totally freaks out players, because level drain is the devil.

The new vampire will fill a campaign role as mastermind and parasite.  This vampire will be the traditional blood-drinker; charismatic, seductive and sophisticated.  They'll take a queue from urban fantasy and form cabals and act as the secret masters, trying to remain hidden from, yet influencing, the mortal world.

Energy draining vampires are going to be savage, feral, and relentless attackers, driven by hunger to drain as much life energy as possible; they haunt dungeons and sleep in the earth.  Blood drinking vampires will be able to walk in sunlight, like Dracula, albeit with diminished powers; they'll often "hide in plain sight" amongst the world of humanity while weaving their plots, keeping herds of human slaves and other victims close at hand.  The last thing the blood-drinkers want to do is fight against a bunch of heavily armed adventurers in a fair fight; they're all about using cat's paws.  The two types of vampires absolutely hate each other.

In the near future, I'll post some additional thoughts on the defining characteristics of the energy-drainers versus the blood-drinkers from a social/campaign use stand point.  I tend to mentally group monsters as 'good combat encounters' and 'good campaign monsters' and the blood-drinkers are definitely campaign-oriented.  It gives me the chance to snag a bit of World of Darkness and urban fantasy and slide it into Gothic Greyhawk.  Strahd was an extraordinary example of the energy-drainers; as a powerful wizard, he was able to maintain more control of his savage urges than the standard energy drainers.

The old Karameikos Gazetteer did the heavy lifting for me by publishing a version of the blood-drinking vampire under the name, The Nosferatu.

The Nosferatu (for Labyrinth Lord)
No. Enc: 1-4
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement:120' (0')
Armor Class: 2
Hit Dice: 7-9**
Attacks: 1 bite, weapon, or special
Damage: 1d4, by weapon, or magic type
Save: Former class level
Morale: 11
Hoard Class:
Non-magic:  1250/1750/2300
Magic:  1650/2300/3000

The nosferatu is a special vampire that retains its character class skills and abilities at the same level it had when it died (or at the level of its new hit dice, whichever is greater).  Each nosferatu should be a unique monster generated similarly to an NPC encounter.

The nosferatu has all the powers and weaknesses of standard vampires, but instead of draining energy levels, it drinks blood (1d4 hp per round).  The nosferatu's victims only return from the dead if the nosferatu intended for  them to do by performing a ritual that transforms the victim into another nosferatu.  Very old nosferatu can operate in sunlight.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Secret Door Tell

I don’t like blocked text.
I prefer really sparse descriptions for room text.
Just let me improvise.

These seem to be common refrains out here on the interwebs.  I don't mind improvising adventures, characters, plots, but I struggle with improvising dungeons well.  For instance, take the ubiquitous secret door:

The room is mostly empty, except for a door directly across from the way you entered.  Unlike the last empty room you entered, this one has a torch sconce on the right hand wall.

The map indicates there's a secret door in the room - I see that, and need to decide whether there's a tricky way to get it to open.  How often do you quickly improvise a unique way to open the secret door, and then introduce that element into your room description at the table?  Or do you just describe it as an empty room, and if the players happen to search the right-hand wall and find the secret door, their roll to find it includes finding the way to open it?  Or do they have to mess with the sconce?

If you add a clever way to open each secret door (like the moose head on the wall, or the sconce) you just telegraphed to the players to fiddle with the moose head.  If you just rely on a secret door roll... yawn.  Might as well play 3x or 4E and use spot checks.  Ostensibly, the paradigm of old school play shifts these types of problems to player skill, but that requires detailed DM descriptions to allow the players to push knobs and levers in the environment.

I'm finding that detailed room descriptions with lots of things to interact are the exact opposite of ultra sparse descriptors- and 33% of the dungeon are empty rooms.  There's an appeal to sparse dungeon keys and stripped down maps that requires a lot of DM improvisation.  My favorite old school experiences have been when the rooms are detailed enough that even empty rooms have something interesting to do in them, and this avoids telegraphing hidden treasures and secret doors.  I'm using secret doors as an easy example, but is really just the start of a larger conversation about improvisation versus pre-scripted content, and the level of detail (or lack thereof) in the two styles.

At this point, I'm just looking for recommendations from fellow DMs - how do you handle empty rooms, dungeon dressing, secret doors and sparse details in your own games?  I'll consider rephrasing this as a poll, later, but am interested in hearing how folks handle improvising the minutia.  I've seen some random tables on dungeon dressing and secret doors but would love to get shout outs to your favorites.  And empty rooms and empty hexes might as well be interchangeable.

If this were a poll, these are the types of answers I might foresee:

a. I develop some notes for empty rooms, traps and secret doors ahead of time (random tables or not).
b. I generate details during the game with tables.
c. I Improvise details for empty rooms and secret doors on the spot .
d. Empty rooms are empty rooms and secret doors are found with a die roll.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Do you patch the Fighter?

This is an old post - I was updating some blog labels and somehow it re-posted - sorry for the repost!

Regular readers know we've been using the LOTFP flavor of BX/classic D&D for the past 8 months or so.  Fighters are really beefed up in LOTFP and are the backbone of the party in combat - they hit better than everyone else, and they have a suite of combat maneuvers (press, parry, defensive fighting) that give them some additional choices.  My group is having an edition discussion right now - deciding if we should stick with LOTFP, upgrade to LOTFP Grindhouse, or go in another direction.  (I've also got a poll up currently to see which edition makes the most sense for the Black City campaign, currently under development).  One thing that jumps out as we discuss editions is how mechanically plain the fighter is in BX and AD&D.  It's mainly an issue of perception - no one noticed the old fighters were vanilla until the new fighters were the rock stars of combat.

A 10th level fighter in BX or AD&D only hits about 2 points better than his clerical peers (THAC0 12 instead of THAC0 14).  One guy dedicates his life to the church, the other to warfare and the practice of arms, and the warrior nets a 10% improvement on his fighting ability over the man of the cloth.  Clerics are limited to d6 weapons, whereas fighters can use d8 weapons and d10 weapons (although I imagine a lot of folks house rule their clerics into using swords and deity-favored weapons).  There is an increase in hit points - the fighter will have 20-25% more hit points over the long haul in BX.

I suppose the fighter will arrange their stats (if you're allowing such a thing) to favor Strength and Constitution, so their to-hit and hit point advantages seem larger because of ability bonuses, but that's somewhat illusory, since the cleric could do it too.  In regular BX, dwarves, elves and halflings also fight just as well as  fighters.

Switching over to AD&D, the high level fighters get multiple attacks - it kicks in around 7th level with 3/2.  BX fighters never get multiple attacks (although Labyrinth Lord mentions them for 15th level fighters - yeah right - like our campaign will last that long).

I always discounted weapon specialization as "AD&D 1E power creep" syndrome, but maybe specialization was seen by TSR as a necessary patch to fix a class that was otherwise indistinguishable?  My Swords & Wizardry complete should be winging it's way eastward shortly, but I'm thinking it'll be in-line with BX.

Anyway - I'd love to hear if other folks have felt the need to "patch" the fighter.  We've played with a vanilla fighter for 30 years without complaining, so I fully recognize this isn't a problem with the rules so much as a problem of perception for groups that have played with beefed up fighters.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Gothic Greyhawk Game 37

Cast of Characters:
Mordecai, a Cleric-5: Adam
Forlorn, an Elf-4: Bo
Mister Moore, Magic User-5: Mike
Soap the Wizard, Magic User-4:  Nogal
Shy, a Fighter-4:  JR
Arden, an Elf-2:  Z
Phat Kobra, a Dwarf-4:  Jeff K

Zeke, a Fighter-4
Starkweather, a Thief-3
Grumble the Smug, Halfling-4
Serge, a Fighter-4
Ireena, a Fighter-4

AD&D 1E, I6 Ravenloft

At the beginning of this session, we welcomed a new (returning) player to the fold (Jeff), had some laughs about the article Under New Management - regarding their plan to take over Castle Ravenloft after clearing it - and then we did the recap.  Jeff will be running one of the more capable henchmen, Phat Kobra.
The quick recap is that Strahd is dead, half the group is sleeping in a drugged stupor, and the wakeful members had found Strahd's treasury.  The decision was made to wait for the drugged stupor to clear from the sleepers, and then plan a course of action; after all, it could be too late in the afternoon to leave by the time they woke.  In fact, it was late afternoon when the drugs started to wear off and the sleeping characters were coming around.  The players began to debate if it made sense to load up with treasure and try to make it down in the dark, or hole up in the castle?

"We don't even know if we can leave," someone mentioned.  "Last time we were here, we needed to rappel down the walls, burn a bunch of knock spells to open the drawbridge, and then cross that rickety bridge.  All because we were warned about some guardian dragon statues.  Are the dragons still animated now that Strahd is dead?"

The debate shifted to determining whether the dragon guardians in the entry hall were still active.  If only there was someone disposable to test?  There was!  Gertrude, Strahd's dimwitted human girlfriend.  Time was spent concocting stories for Gertrude, building up their opinion of her status as Mistress of the castle, and convincing her to accompany them down to the entry hall where Strahd would be meeting them after dark to give instructions.  Zeke, already quite enamored with Gertrude, volunteered to go down there, and dragged along Shy with him.

Within the dark entry hall, Gertrude was not attacked by the guardian dragons, but the moment Shy tried to cross the hall, they animated and dropped to the ground.  He made it out of the hall before they were able to breathe, but he slammed the door on Gertrude, locking her in the entry hall.  It didn't sound like the dragons were attacking her, though she was irritated about being ditched.  "As Mistress of Ravenloft, I will not stand for this rude treatment; you're fired!"  Apparently Gertrude was granted some kind of 'Run of the Castle' such that the animated guardians ignored her.  At least they confirmed that many of Strahd's guardians were still operable, despite his death.  Drats.

There wasn’t much time to stand there and think, as gargoyles began to animate near the ceiling of the rotunda behind the entry hall, and Zeke and Shy ran for their lives.

When they got back upstairs, they had to relate how they lost Gertrude in the entry hall.  "There were these dragons, and then I closed the door, and then there were these gargoyles, and then we ran for it because it was just the two of us… I'm sure Gertrude will be fine.  She had on her winter coat after all."

They made the pragmatic choice to go smash the gargoyles and rescue Gertrude, mainly because they knew they'd have to tackle the gargoyles sooner or later, and sitting in the room waiting for some undead to attack seemed less exciting.
The gargoyle fight was anti-climactic; Arden wasted most of them with a few blasts from the fireball wand, but some great attack rolls by the DM sent Forlorn the Elf into negative hit points; he was saved with various healing spells.  The negative hit points experience got me thinking about the -10 rule and why we use it; I put up a post the other day and a corresponding poll.  Now that I see it is an AD&D rule, I'm probably jettisoning it (you can sit right up there on the munchkin shelf, Mr -10 rule, alongside 4d6 stat generation, increased hit dice, and XP for magic items).

After finishing off the gargoyles, they opened the door to the entry hall (without entering) to see if Gertrude was cowering in the dark.  She was not.  Instead, her desiccated corpse was hung on the wall like a trophy.  They had seen enough "level drain" at Ravenloft to know the tell-tale signs of a corpse killed by some malignant undead.  The word must be out; Strahd was dead, Getrude was now fair game, and the inmates were running the asylum.  The group quickly retreated upstairs to decide what to do next.

Sasha the Vampire Queen was rooting around Gertrude's cozy suite, strewing her silky clothes about and holding up various garments to gauge the fit.  The dirt-caked, scabrous thing was surprised when the party pulled open the huge doors to Gertrude's suite, and the group unloaded on her.  Blasted by a lightning bolt and caught in a fireball, her corporeal form disintegrated.  A vampiric mist cloud began screaming past the characters to the safety of the crypt.

The players asked for time out and began to deliberate - do they try and follow the gas cloud to wherever it's going, or rest and recover resources?  DMing aside:  Do you grant time out mid game?  Part of the fun social aspect of table top gaming is deliberating over the strategic choices and calculating the options; I tend to let players have a reasonable amount of time to yammer and not listen too closely.   The fun the players have strategizing trumps what little glee the DM would get making them declare actions within 5 seconds or whatever (I suppose real-world time stress can be fun in small doses).

This was the player train of thought that won out: any time they fight a vampire, they'll need to blow resources; if they rest to regain those resources, the vampire will be fully recovered and they'll need to blow the same resources again.  There never would be an ideal time to blast a vampire and track it to its lair.  With that thought in mind, they dropped weight and sprinted off after the gas cloud, jumping stairs and doing everything possible to keep it within sight.  Twenty minutes later, they had followed the cloud spiraling down into the catacombs and caught sight of it disappearing into a crypt marked "Sasha, Beloved Wife".

They stood doubled over and panting outside the crypt in the dank catacombs, wondering about the relative safety of the catacombs.  Forlorn remarked, "This is probably the safest place at night - all the bad undead are out looking for meals".  Mordecai got everyone's attention - "When we ran through the chapel, I saw a glowing object on the altar - the Icon of Ravenkind.  It was mentioned in Donavich's book.  I think we should go back for it; we know where the vampire is sleeping, and it'll be hours before it's ready to fight.  We have time to collect the icon and then return to stake it".

They reluctantly left the crypt (a fatal decision) and went back to the chapel.  The ancient body of a dead priest was sprawled across the altar.  Starkweather confirmed he didn't think it was trapped, but there was no way he was touching the small icon; that was Mordecai's thing.  The cleric gulped and stalled, until the 9 year olds at the table reminded him that the priest was an evil priest struck dead when trying to steal the icon (also something Father Donavich had mentioned), so Mordecai manned up and grabbed the icon.  It's funny the obscure details those kid's remember, when you don't even think they're listening.

The party confidently returned to the catacombs below the chapel, ready to open the vampire's crypt, but stopped in their tracks when they saw a figure standing in the middle of the passage at the edge of their light.  Wrapped in funeral shrouds, her face obscured by hair hanging in front, the translucent figure appeared sad and mournful.  And then it exploded forward in rage and fury.

The Banshee.

They had seen the Banshee once before, lurking in a side passage during daytime, and the figure quickly fled, unable to keen with the sun overhead.  Deep underground, at night, the creature quickly moved forward and wailed, forcing saving throws around the table.  Soap the Wizard, Arden the Elf, and Starkweather the Thief all died from the scream; it's miraculous more of them made their saving throws.  Many that saved versus death were still frozen in place by magical Fear, unable to think straight with the deathly chill radiated by the Banshee.

There was no time to mourn the dead, as the front line fighters were quickly assailed by the slashing claws of the Banshee.  They took no further losses, though Kobra lost half of his 46 hit points.  Well-armed with magic weapons, they were able to quickly destroy the Banshee, but they had suffered serious losses.

Sasha's crypt door was pulled open and a few of the fighters slid the slab of the sarcophagus to the side; Sasha's body had reformed, but the vampire was still helpless and immobile.  Mordecai staked the vampire, stuffed garlic in its mouth, and then decapitated her.  There was a momentary sense of accomplishment, and then they considered how vast seemed the underground catacombs.  If slaying a single vampire was this hard, how many more vampires would there be?

Zowie, that's where we ended.  Dead bodies in the hall, the group is exhausted and spent and low on resources, and they're standing in the very heart of darkness.  Plus they fireballed that upstairs bed room in the castle and took off running - what are the odds they set the castle on fire?

This was the first time Nogal lost a character in the campaign; the illustrious career of Soap the Wizard is over (barring they find a Raise Dead somewhere).  He was sad for a minute, but already started pitching his idea for a new guy on the walk home - a crazed Spartan paladin that he wants to call "Leonidas".  He's too young to see "300" but he must have caught some scenes of an edited version on one of the cable channels.  Should be fun.

Campaign Notes: 
I've seen some blog talk this week about the deadliness of campaigns; I don't believe my campaign is very deadly, but there have been plenty of deaths.  We've been playing Gothic Greyhawk since last August; there have been 13 character deaths.  We aspire to play weekly, but average 2-3 games per month; after 37 game sessions, most characters have enough XP to reach level 5.  Right now, the group is sitting on close to 60k XP, just waiting for some breathing room to secure various treasures and gain levels.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Gothic Greyhawk - Game 36

Cast of Characters:
Mordecai, a Cleric-5: Adam
Forlorn, an Elf-4: Bo
Mister Moore, Magic User-5: Mike
Soap the Wizard, Magic User-4:  Nogal
Shy, a Fighter-4:  JR
Arden, an Elf-2:  Z

Phat Kobra, a Dwarf-4
Zeke, a Fighter-4
Starkweather, a Thief-3
Grumble the Smug, Halfling-4
Serge, a Fighter-4

AD&D 1E, I6 Ravenloft

As usual, I'm behind on game reports, and since last week's session featured carnage on an unprecedented scale, I need to get caught up - this is from two weeks ago.

Strahd had just been reduced to a smoking pile of ash by the Dispel Evil spell, and the group quickly consulted the divine realm using their Commune scroll to confirm the great vampire was gone.  The matter settled conclusively, they began to explore.  Finding Strahd's treasury and gleefully tossing coins into the air was the primary order of business.

They first visited Gertrude, Strahd's sexy but dumb human moll; she was ignorant of the demise of her lord, but also had no clue regarding the treasury's location.  They convinced her they were joining Strahd's cause and moved on, but Zeke the NPC began to show signs of a crush.  Lipsiege, the accountant, knew the treasury was adjacent to the study, and that convinced the group to keep the search tightly focused.  There was a side encounter with a nasty spectre that led to yet more level draining, and then the group decided they needed to tackle the hearth in the study.  (My list of current character levels up above is a little out of date - I know a bunch of NPC fighters have taken hits...)

Early descriptions of the hearth revealed that it was 'large enough for a man to stand inside'.  The roaring fire was extinguished, and once the stones in the hearth were cool enough, they conducted a search.  I should point out, looming over each of their decisions was the threat of night; the day was still early, but they were fixated on getting off the mountain well before night fall.  How would the many undead react when it was discovered that the lord and master that kept them in line was gone?  They didn't want to be near the coming battle of succession as previously controlled undead became free-willed.  The time pressure was a constant factor.

A search of the hearth revealed a secret door, and a treasure room beyond.  The treasure room was false, and the large chest inside was trapped with a powerful sleep gas that knocked out half of the group!  Yikes.  The few waking characters dragged the sleepers out of the false treasure chamber, and returned to the secret room to search further.  Another secret door was found and "knocked" open by Soap the Wizard.  Beyond the secret door was a long, web-lined corridor.

Soap returned to the study and grabbed the fireball wand off of the sleeping Arden the Elf.  "I've been waiting for this", he gloated.  Accompanied by Shy the Fighter, they blasted a fireball down the webbed passage, clearing it out and revealing a large bronze portal at the end.  "Woohoo!  That felt great!"  Leaving the sleepers and a few guards, they found a webbed tower beyond the bronze portal.

Shy and Soap were joined by Father Donavich and Phat Kobra, leaving Grumble and a few others to guard the sleeping characters out in the study.  They found a secret door in the webbed chamber, but became aware of large spiders descending quickly out of the webs above them.  Why they didn't blast the webs as a matter of course, "just to be sure…", I don't know - but they quickly blasted upwards with the wand, now, while ducking out of the room; a few giant spiders were charred to death by the fireball, and the rest fled into the darkness of the tower high above.

Through the secret door in the side of the tower was Strahd's fantastic treasure vault - a vast pile of coins and an array of weapons, all identified as magic when Soap used his wand of magic detection.  There were 70,000 mixed coins, gems and jewelry - a lordly sum.  Coins were tossed into the air gleefully.

We ended there, as the group had some difficult logistical challenges to ponder.  Daylight is burning, and more than half the group is still asleep in a drugged stupor - creating the very real possibility that they'll be trapped in the castle after dark, unable for the conscious members to get everyone safely down the mountain.  And this is compounded by their desire to claim Strahd's massive treasure for their own and not leave it unguarded through the night.  Muhaha.

Tune in next time to see plenty of character death.  Oh, the humanity (and elfmanity).

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hit Points, Death and Dying

The rules around death and dying vary quite a bit across editions.  For as long as I can remember, I've used the general AD&D rule; 0 hit points and below is unconscious, and at -10 is death.  Unconscious characters lose 1hp per round until treated or death is reached.  The actual AD&D rule is a bit more nuanced - there's mention of permanent injury and scarring in the DMG at -6, a 'severe blow' death below -3.  Like most things in AD&D, nothing is simple.  For simple, you've got Moldvay and classic D&D - zero or lower is dead.

I remember an old post by Cyclopeatron that had Gary Gygax's house rule - I'll dig for the link - Gygax House Rules.  Normal men died at zero hit points, but a classed character would be unconscious equal to his level +1.  A level one character could survive and be unconscious to -2, a level eight character could survive to -9.  Another house rule I've seen is unconscious at zero, dead at anything below zero.

Seems like a good time for a poll, especially since I'm about to ditch the -10 hit point house rule.  A new poll is up:  "How do you handle death, dying and zero hit points in your game?"

Your Villain is Suck - Part 2

A continuation of yesterday's piece on presenting better villains in your game sessions.

A recap of the problem:  When the DM is preparing an adventure site, they probably spend the most time developing the boss villain (if there is one) and laying out a bit of back story and motivation.  The DM would like the villain to be memorable; role playing games build shared stories.  But the typical boss villain only shows up at the end of an adventure, a nanosecond before the party unloads on him with everything they've got.

Familiarity breeds contempt.  We still want the party to unload on the villain, but the goal is to give the party enough familiarity with the villain that they cheer about it after they grease him.  It sounds really simple, but the party needs to know about the villain before they can feel contempt.  The goal of these techniques around presenting better villains is targeted at getting the players information.

Yesterday focused on some 1st person techniques to building out a villain's profile:
  • Finding evidence of villainous acts
  • Encounters with henchmen and name droppers
  • Rumors and stories told by bystanders
  • Targeting the characters personally by the villain
  • Direct confrontations between the party and the big-bad
Today we'll dig into the writer's bag of tricks and pull out some techniques that work well in film and literature, where there's a bit more creativity in terms of the narrative.  A DM is a storyteller, performer, and a bit of a writer, too.  Here we go.

Third-Person Techniques
In movies and books, the protagonist may not encounter the villain until late in the story, but the audience is already very familiar with them.  Through 3rd person story telling, we get to see all the horrible things the villain is doing along the way.  In Silence of the Lambs, we watch transfixed as Buffalo Bill kidnaps his victims, and then later when he lowers the basket into the pit - "It will rub the lotion into it's skin…"  The audience usually knows more about the villain's activities than the protagonist, and the audience feels the most satisfaction when the villain finally gets crushed.  As game masters, we can use similar techniques when running our D&D games by using 3rd person "cut scenes" to tease, foreshadow, and flashback in a way similar to movies and books.  Here is an example, picking up with the 'Bargle the Infamous' storyline from yesterday.

Early in the game, the players learn that a nearby farmstead is a smoking ruin, the latest target in the nightly attacks… they investigate.  After exploring the charred homestead, they conclude that orcs attacked the farm in the night; there are clear tracks leading into the foothills.  The DM decides this is a good time for a cut scene to reveal a little more background about what's going on, and to introduce the villain.  Here's how he might present it as a flashback:

Here is some extra information for you as players.  Remember that your characters in the game world didn't actually see it.  The night before, you see orcs come pouring out of the nearby woods, spears in hand, jumping the fences and overrunning the farm.  The entire family of Yeoman Aiden is quickly seized, gagged, and dragged off into the night.  As the last orcs retreat from the farm, you can see a shape floating in the air nearby, silhouetted against the night sky.  The figure looks like a wizard riding on a square of cloth - a magic carpet.  The wizard casually flicks a slender wand at the farm house, and it explodes into flame.  "If only those pathetic humans knew what I have in store for them in my dungeons, they would have pleaded for a merciful death.  Muhaha."  And the scene ends with the magic user banking sharply on the carpet, and catching up to his retreating war band.

What did this accomplish?  The players now know the villain behind the farmhouse raids is a magic user that leads the orcs; he has a vicious wand of fire balls; whatever the wizard is doing with the captured farmers, it’s a face worse than death.

In this case, this scene isn't necessary, it's just dramatic.  A sharp group might ask questions about the nature of the fire at the farm, and discover through player skill that it appears blasted by magical fire.  Inquiries in town would turn up rumors about the town's black sheep, Bargle, who swore to return some day and have his revenge on the peasants that exiled him years earlier.  The players may even learn how Bargle killed the village's favorite daughter, Aleena.

I would recommend keeping cut scenes short and to the point and choose carefully what to reveal.  They're good at heightening the drama or foreshadowing.  Here's another example - Bargle is taking townspeople back to his dungeon, dipping them in alchemical vats, and pulling them out transformed into orcs.  That sequence would be an excellent cut scene to portray later.  It demonstrates Bargle's depravity.  It increases the player's anxiety and creates a sense of urgency - especially if someone they know from the village is in a dungeon cell waiting to be dipped.  On the other hand, if you're an Evil DM, that might be the kind of "reveal" you want to save until later, after they've killed most of the orcs and realized they just slew a bunch of innocent transformed townspeople.  Muhaha.

It's been interesting to see people get out there and declare elements of their DM styles the past few days.  I run a player-driven sandbox, but I'm not above including cut scenes from time to time for drama.  3rd party scenes blur the line between player-driven and "telling the DM's story", so it's worth a warning - they're best used to present additional information after players have already made a choice of direction.  When you pull these types of techniques out of the toolbox, do so with care.

Examples from Recent Play
I've used techniques from yesterday's post and today's post recently in my current campaign, so here are some illustrative examples on developing a villain's relationship with the player to maximize the hostility.  My group has been exploring Castle Ravenloft and had numerous encounters with the big boss vampire, Strahd Von Zarovitch; they really started to dislike him.  In fact, I would say they earnestly sought his destruction; they looked forward to terminating him with the extreme prejudice.

The evidence of Strahd's depredations were everywhere in the village, and they learned more about his atrocities from those few villagers that were still alive.  In their first encounter, Strahd mocked them from a safe distance while commanding dire wolves to attack.  At another point, they had formed an alliance with the mayor's daughter Ireena, and Strahd reanimated the corpse of the dead mayor to attack them with her own dead father.  Later, he was unhappy they were staying at the mayor's mansion, so he fireballed it.  He summoned an earth elemental to smash the burning mansion to splinters and then stomp on the characters.  If the characters had any cornflakes, Strahd would have tried to pee in them.  They had lots and lots of direct and indirect face time with the vampire lord.

I also introduced a 3rd person cut scene.  In an encounter, Strahd polymorphed one of the clerics into a field mouse while the party was out in a large field, changed himself into an owl, caught the mouse running around out in the field, and carried the transformed cleric off to a high tower of the castle for some quality time - Reservoir Dogs style.  The cut scene involved Strahd interrogating the hapless cleric regarding the location of the item Strahd was seeking.  The scene ended with Strahd coldly draining all the guy's life and discarding the empty husk.  It was awesome!  The cut scene didn't tell them anything they didn't know already except that he just wasted their cleric and laughed about it.  "That's it, we've got to go kill this mother-frackin vampire tomorrow."  Mission accomplished.

Ravenloft is an easy adventure for applying this treatment because Strahd is such a multi-dimensional threat, but I use the same techniques with most adventures where there's an underdeveloped villain that needs a little help to cross over into being truly hated and despised.

Would love to hear some comments and reactions, especially if other folks use literary techniques like cut scenes or foreshadowing in their games (or, you know, maybe I'm too much of a hippy LARPer thespian type and should add the drama club badge to my DM profile).

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Your Villain is Suck

The blogosphere's "Better DM challenge" got me thinking of other things I do at the table that I don’t see mentioned very often; the next few days I'll have some more posts on game mastering advice, starting with a two part piece on improving your villains.

First - has the following situation happened to you?  All of the minions and lesser challenges you built into your dungeon were placed there by the mastermind of the dungeon - we'll call him Bargle the Infamous.  Your group finally busts in on Bargle's lab, and he begins with his annoying monologue.  "So, you are the purile peons that killed my clever kobolds, ostracized my onslaught of orcs, and bumbled through my brace of brazen bugbears, and blah blah blah…"  About halfway through this ridiculous speech, the group decides to unload magic missiles on poor Bargle, quickly loot his corpse, and move on to the next room.  Done and done.

You were thinking this was the big climactic showdown with your favorite villain; you needed him to blabber on about his plots and plans so this final battle would seem meaningful, but the group wasted him without a second thought.  I'm here to help!  Today and tomorrow, I'll highlight some techniques for presenting better villains at the table, followed by some example at how they've worked in my own campaigns.  These techniques are battle-tested, Beedo-approved.

The Problem:  Lack of Relationship
The issue with the Bargle encounter described above is that the group has no pre-existing relationship with Bargle before they bust in on his laboratory.  He's just another meat-bag full of XP waiting to be scored.  There are some villains that are so overpowering and intimidating (like running into a Lich!) that they need no foreshadowing or build up - their very appearance will make the fight epic.  For everyone else, you need to lay the groundwork.

Published adventures are littered with weak villains - if you run them straight up.  Let's look at a classic: T1, The Village of Hommlet.  The main villain is supposedly Lareth the Beautiful, the dark hope of Chaotic Evil.  More like the dark hope of Chaotic Suck.  The first time he shows up is in the last room of the dungeon, about 3 seconds before the players kick his ass, steal his magic armor, and loot his sanctuary - "Drinks at the Welcome Wench are on me fellas!".  The Slave Lords, Drelzna of Tsojcanth, the priest of the Shrine of Evil Chaos, Eclavdra the drow - the classics are full of intricate villains that show up just in time to die.   You may wonder why they even bothered with back stories for these chumps.

If the players don't have any prior exposure to the villain, there's very little emotional triumph when the villain is defeated, and all those notes on the villain's back story are wasted ink.  There needs to be a degree of knowledge, familiarity, and relationship between the players and the villain.  Understand - they'll still kick his ass and loot the corpse and roll the body in a ditch, but at least they'll cheer about it, first.

First-Person Techniques
It sounds really simple, and it is: the players need to know who the villain is before the final confrontation.  If you're a first person purist - meaning the only information the players know about the game world is what they see and hear directly - then you need to have opportunities for the characters to encounter the villain's handiwork along the way.

Let's go back and use Bargle the Infamous again.  Bargle's humanoids are raiding the countryside, attacking farms.  The PCs get involved.  What are different 1st person ways to introduce knowledge about Bargle to the players, long before their characters meet him?

Perhaps the humanoids all wear uniforms or symbols that reference their new master, Bargle.  "You can kill us, but wait until Bargle hears about it - you'll be dead!", gloats the dying orc.  Escaped prisoners back in town tell stories about Bargle, the terrible wizard of the dungeon.  "He was going to cook me for his gnolls, it's a wonder I was able to escape".  The escaped towns person can describe Bargle's appearance and maniacal laughter.  Bargle's legend begins to grow.

To avenge Aleena, Bargle must die
Let us not forget, a dear friend of everyone who played the Mentzer tutorial, Aleena the cute NPC Cleric, was cut down by Bargle; an entire generation of Mentzer red box players grew up looking forward to the day they took down Bargle*.  Aleena's father, head of the local church, meets the PC's and shares his story.

As the player characters clear the levels, Bargle learns about them with his crystal ball and takes a personal interest in seeing them die.  Special ambushes are set, and the group recovers written instructions from Bargle to one of his humanoid commanders - it's clear to the PC's Bargle can describe their appearances perfectly.  Now that he's gunning for them, they have even more reason to go stomp him.

Ideally, you can maneuver Bargle to confront the players personally, at least once, before they confront him in his hiding place.  Perhaps he sneaks into town, attacks them from afar, and escapes invisibly.  A well-prepared magic user like Bargle should be able to show up, give the party a bloody nose (or worse), laugh and gloat at a little, and have plenty of tricks to escape.

The risk with a direct confrontation is that players are crafty and unpredictable, and you need to be prepared for them to think outside the box and kill your villain on the spot.  Don't get sucked into the trap of fudging the dice or changing the results if the players get lucky.  If they killed him, he's dead.  Don't have some preconceived notion of a final confrontation; you're not writing a novel.  You stuck the villain out there, DM, live with the consequences - time to move on.

But here's the overarching message - writing a dungeon or prepping a published adventure is only the first step towards running it.  Spend some time thinking about how the forces in the dungeon will interact with the outside world, and if there's a villain or guiding force behind the dungeon, how that villain will react to adventurers invading the dungeon.  Active resistance will make it harder on the players, and it will also give you these opportunities to directly foreshadow the final villain and let the players get a firsthand experience of the villain.  Ignore the fact that the dungeon key places the big bad guy in room 61 or whatever.  The moment the game starts, it's your world, so run the villain like an active opponent following through on his own goals and making his own moves.  You'll have more fun running the game, and your game will be better for it.

Ok - that wraps for today; tomorrow I'll look at using some indirect, 3rd person techniques to develop an interesting villain.  See you then.

*Bargle's Story - Bargle was a lowly 3rd level magic-user in the Mentzer D&D boxed set, but by the time the Grand Duchy of Karameikos rolled around, he was promoted to being a15th level wizard, and the court magician of the vile Black Eagle Baron.  He was a major villain in any Karameikos campaign, and led an organization of criminals and slavers called The Iron Ring.

While Aleena died in the tutorial adventure, it helps to have connections.  Her father uncle was the Patriarch of Threshold, a 9th level cleric, and she must have been raised from the dead, seeing as she too resurfaced in The Grand Duchy Gazetteer.

There have been 'Kill Bargle' adventures in Dungeon, and Aleena has a cult following to this day...

Monday, August 22, 2011


Stuart over at Strange Magic had a pretty cool idea regarding game master styles - having a set of easy to reference badges that lets you know, at a glance, some notes about someone's game mastering style.  Do you make up rulings on the fly and improvise most of your encounters, or run scripted adventures?  Do you fudge dice when the whole party is going to die, or let the chips fall, even if it derails the adventure and wrecks your campaign?  Interesting stuff.  Quick caveat though - let's hold off on the value judgments - there are many ways to run a game, they're just not all the right styles for me.

Beedo's Badges
I picked Scary Stories, Death Happens, Don't Fudge Dice, By the Book, Exploration, Pre-made Content

I don't believe in fudging dice to guide the story, and death happens; for instance, we lost three player characters last night because they failed their saving throws against a banshee scream.

I don't believe in making up madcap rules on the fly, and try to be By The Book - I require resource management, encumbrance, light, all that stuff; however, we do have a set of pre-agreed House Rules that are considered part of The Book.

I try to give all of the adventures I run a horror twist, and heavily favor exploration themes.  I prefer to run pre-made content and use a small amount of improvisation to enhance it.

Mythic Monday - the Great Flood

Waters flooding the Himalayas, from the movie 2012

The gods look down upon a world where corrupt sorcerers practice forbidden magic learned by consulting obscene, extra planar monsters.  These foul wizards, each a ruler of his own decadent city-state, wage war across the countryside, capturing slaves to be sacrificed on the altars of the demon princes.   Agents of the divine powers scour the earth looking for any of their remaining clerics to warn them; a crucial decision has been made by the gods - the world must be cleansed.

The countryside of a Dungeons & Dragons world is littered with ancient ruins, where gold coins forged by fallen empires of the past wait for adventurers to recover them.  Monsters lurk in the ruins, and daring explorers discover lost artifacts and relics.    The implied setting of Dungeons & Dragons is essentially post apocalyptic.  The ruined civilizations of the past had technologies (or at least magic) greater than the current age, which the characters often quest to plunder.

The reasons for the fallen state of any given fantasy world vary.  Tolkien presents the long, elegiac decline of Middle Earth as the loss of magic and the nature of passing time.  The historical Middle Ages looked backwards to the glory of Rome; the barbarians were blamed as the proximate reason the empire crumbled.

How about the great flood as the source of the destruction?  The flood theme recurs in a number of myths; most often the flood is a divine punishment.  It fires my imagination that disparate cultures in the ancient world have similar flood myths - regardless of whether a world wide flood happened, the story was powerful enough to travel across cultures.

The flood myths follow similar patterns:

  • The world becomes corrupt or man is prideful and disobedient to the divine order
  • A divine messenger warns an upright or righteous person about the coming judgment
  • The favored man builds a means of surviving the flood
  • The world of man is destroyed in the deluge, but the waters eventually recede
  • Sacrifice is made to the gods
  • Humanity begins to rebuild, once again reconciled with the divine world.

You see these patterns in the Greek myth of Deucalion, the story of Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Noah's Ark from the Bible.

There are intriguing scientific theories about ancient floods.   Did an asteroid crash into the Indian Ocean, creating tsunamis that destroyed coastal settlements all over the ancient Near East?  Were prehistoric tsunamis instead the byproduct of volcanic eruptions in the Mediterranean?  Perhaps the flood myths are memories of lost settlements when water levels rose at the end of the Ice Age due to melting glaciers.

Using the Flood Myth in D&D
Older editions of Dungeons & Dragons use a Law vs Chaos alignment axis; from there it's easy to define clerical magic and divine power flowing from Law and arcane magic derived from the forces of Chaos.  Even if you don't use any type of alignment system, there is a popular trope in fantasy regarding the tension between religion and arcane magic.

I like the idea that too much arcane magic imbalanced the world towards Chaos and led to a world wide catastrophe.  The corrupt empires of the past were wiped from the face of the earth by the gods due to the hubris of the ancient sorcerer-kings and the unearthly demons they permitted to walk terrestrial soil.  Or perhaps go with a story like that of the Nephilim I discussed recently - corrupt practices between humans and rebellious angels (or similar divine agents) created a race of super-men, demigods, or monsters, and judgment was passed on the world of man and the rebellious angels alike.  (This has the extra benefit of tying in with the recent musings on The Origins of Demons).

The Dragonlance series of novels isn't popular in our old school playing circles; Dragonlance marks a shift in D&D towards railroad plots and DM-guided stories as opposed to player-driven adventures.  Despite the Dragonlance adventures, the actual World of Krynn is really good and has a lot of ideas worth borrowing.  Krynn's current fallen state is due to a "divine judgment" that led to The Cataclysm - a widespread devastation that sunk continents and sundered mountains.  There's already a precedent in D&D for unleashing the gods on the campaign world when the created overstep their bounds.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Organizing the Tools and Techniques of the DM

DMing is more art than science, and the DM is the one role that can make or break the quality of the game.  A bad player can hurt a session, but there are techniques for managing bad players; the campaign doesn't stand a chance with a poor DM.

It's interesting seeing the "Build a Better DM" challenge get rolling, to see how many comments have focused exclusively on writing.  I could argue writing is the least important skill the DM needs to have; at best it covers a quarter of the skill set.

The DM is a storyteller, a performer, a writer, and an information architect.  You can have shortcomings in one area and still be a good DM, but a great DM needs to operate on 4 cylinders.  As I see folks respond to the Hill Canton's challenge, I mentally slide their techniques into one of these buckets.  To facilitate the dialogue, here is what I mean by them:

The most fundamental DM job is telling a story.  I don't mean guiding players through a plotted novel; I mean the constant task of description and Socratic back-and-forth of asking and answering questions, by and for the players, reveals the DM's world, and this flow of information is storytelling.

I mentioned yesterday the technique of not front-loading your descriptions too much.  Sparse initial descriptions are a lead-in to the DM's Socratic method; they build tension, require the players to ask questions to elicit more details, and quickly engages players in the environment,  As opposed to putting them to sleep with a wall of text (or speech).  You're not a f___ing writer.

(Seeing what I'm doing there?  Because you are a f___ing writer, you're just not a f___ing writer when you're actually at the table, presenting the game world.  Ha ha - just cracking me up at 3am).

The DM is portraying characters using the spoken word; it's impossible not to compare the act of portraying NPCs to theater on some level.  Whether it's memorizing a villain's key lines or delivering an outline, using a funny voice or accent, incarnating the physicality of a character at the table, or a similar technique, the DM is a performer.  Basic techniques of performance can help the DM.

I mentioned "NPC backstories are irrelevant" - focus on NPC behavior that would be relevant in a single-serving scene.  Uncle Dark rightly pointed out that a backstory might be necessary to get to the point that you know how that characters would behave "on stage", and that's a fair point; just remember that your psych profile you write that would make Stephen King proud isn't useful for portraying that character unless you can make it immediately demonstrable at the table.

I also put in a technique yesterday about 'never fudging the dice', and specifically called out the technique of using random results, no matter how gonzo, and working them into the story - as a technique.  I've done some improv theater, and my wife continues to perform and direct it; if you're not familar with the discipline, most improv involves getting an audience suggestion, and then the acting troupe quickly assembles scenes around the theme of the suggestion, sans script.  Random tables are the DM's "audience suggestion".  What's interesting about the use of random tables is that it crosses disciplines; if you use random tables ahead of the session, perhaps it challenges you as a writer, as a kind of brainstorming technique; using them during the session they are assuredly tools of performance and storytelling.

The DM is a writer, and ultimately needs to develop all the characters and situations that populate the game world; techniques of the writer apply.  My sense is this area will see the most development on the blogs - techniques like heightening the tension, Chekhov's gun, filing off the serial numbers, and foreshadowing; if not I'll get some blurbs out (eventually).

Information Architect
It seems to me it gets overlooked that the DM also needs to be an information architect.  It's great to generate ideas about the game world and write a dissertation length essay on a given adventure, but can it be ran effectively at the table?  Many published modules are an unwieldy mess because of boxed text or wordy descriptions that bury key information about a given story element, and they fail the test of usability at the table.

I gave advice yesterday about using a game calendar to track the passage of time, weather, and campaign events; it's a technique for structuring information for use and accessibility.

When we talk about site-based adventures, hex crawls, sandboxes, keyed maps, writing key elements right on the map, using sparse descriptions and improvising the rest, eliminating boxed text, using highlights or crib notes, random tables, NPC index cards, and so on, it's all about structuring the information needed to perform the game world; it falls into this DMing discipline of information architecture.

At the bottom of yesterday's post, I put a few placeholders on techniques to discuss, that I'll come back to in the next day or so.  In the meantime, if you come across techniques that other DM's are posting as part of the Hill Canton's challenge, consider which of these four disciplines are influenced by that technique; it's a valuable exercise.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Building the Better GM

The game is afoot.  Hill Cantons has started the "Building a Better GM Challenge", and bloggers are answering the call.  It’s going to be hard to stop at just 3 techniques.

Of course, I'd really love to hear what techniques work from some of the old time great Dungeon Masters in the hobby, so it would be awesome if folks that have rememberances of gaming with Gary or Dave Arneson, or really any of the folks from the game's storied past, could share some observances.

Thats not to say there aren't going to be newer techniques from more recent games that have a place - I have a whole list of "new school techniques that I like to use, but I'll start with some basics.

Make a Calendar
A calendar implies that you're marking the passage of time - turns, hours, days, weeks, months.  You're tracking climate, the weather.  On the macro level, have future events happening in the larger world that are tied to the calendar.  During July, the border skirmish between Kingdom A and Kingdom B will erupt in war.  Nothing adds some basic verisimilitude to the world like a calendar and a list of potential upcoming events and weather; the list is very easy to generate in advance.  It's huge when sandboxing.

Use a Progressive Descriptive Technique
"In the room is a book case, with a number of shelves and volumes, and a large desk in the corner."  Keep initial descriptions brief so the players can direct their own attention, instead of front-loading the exposition.  Hold back the fact that the desk is a large roll-top Victorian style, locked, with initials "AS" carved in the front of the drawer - that's second level stuff that's important when they go and investigate it closer.

Never Fudge the Dice
Use lots of random tables and accept the results specifically to spur creativity.  Instead of making the wandering encounter in the Orc Woods have to be orcs, isn't it more interesting to use a random result (Halflings!) and then have to quickly improvise why the group is encountering Halflings in the Orc Woods?

NPC Back Stories are Irrelevant
Instead of writing about NPC back stories, jot down or two quick things about their appearance, manner of speech, physicality at the table, or favorite sayings.  NPCs need to "tell their story" in single servings.  Example:  you could write up a long boring back story about the abused tavern wench that's 99% likely never going to come up, or you could just write in her NPC description - 'look down at the table when this character speaks, don't make eye contact with any of the players' and suddenly you have a much more interesting NPC.  Everyone's wondering what's wrong with her?

Just a few I want to track, perhaps put in a part 2 in case another blogger doesn't pick them up:

  • Zak's 'Show don't Tell Rule'
  • When the action slows down, men with guns burst in the door
  • Advice on how to run someone else's published work at your table
    • Despite what some folks might imply, you can be a good DM without creating everything from scratch
  • Valuable stuff from the old school primer
    • The ming vase, the donner party, the moose head, abstract combat fu
  • And some controversial new schoolisms:
    • Better villains with cut scenes
    • Giving players some 'narrative control' from time to time


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Creativity, Standardization, and Cranky Grognards

It's funny how the mind can correlate unrelated blog posts.

Today I was over at Alexis's place - he's been railing against the RJK interview that happened over on the Hill Cantons.  Anyway, one of his many theses seems to be that D&D needs standardization (bear in mind, the only right way to play D&D is his way).  So I'm just another useless blogger.  Man, I love that guy.

Then you read about Ark and his frustration with 4E.  We played 4E for almost two years before returning to classic D&D; we know all about it.  Let me tell you, 4E is chock full of standardization.  Mountains of standards.  Rules and a core system that cover everything.  Go check out Ark's piece to see how he really feels about all those mechanics.

Then I'm over at Grognardia reading how Ed Greenwood doesn't bother with the rule book or roll the dice unless its combat, adjudicates all the non-combat bits by pure DM fiat, and it's a rip-roaring session.

The Standard for old school play needs to be Creative DMs.  There, I've solved it.

Edit:  Added Links
Alexis argues for conformity and standards
Ark rails against 4E's Mechanics
Grognardia recounts gaming with Ed Greenwood

Mini-Review: A Stranger Storm

More thoughts on Horror, Demon Possession and D&D - and a review!

I've been on a bit of a demonic possession kick over here at the Lich House - the past few Mythic Mondays have had pieces on the origins of demons, exorcisms, and using possession in your game.  Yesterday I talked up REC 2 and it's blending of the zombie and demon genre.  I'm just about done exploring the theme and thought it would be worthwhile to take a moment and discuss why it works as a horror element.  Abstraction and distance help one apply the idea in alternate contexts.

Demonic possession pushes a number of buttons, but the ones that stand out to me are "The Enemy Among Us" and "Loss of Control".  There's an older article here, Horror in Dungeons & Dragons, that lists more horror themes, and how to sprinkle them into your game from time to time.

The Enemy Among Us
Classic demons are invisible, immaterial, undetectable.  At some point in the possession pathology the victim might manifest terrifying external symptoms, but until then, there's no telling.  Movies like Fallen and Paranormal Activity work because a loved one has been compromised and suppressed by the invader and it's not obvious.  You see a similar idea at work in movies like The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or Heinlein's The Puppetmasters.  The Enemy Among Us theme invokes paranoia, distrust, and a bit of vicarious horror; we don't know who is staring out at us from behind those familiar eyes.  And it could happen to me, too.

Loss of Control
The other piece of the demonic possession theme is Loss of Control.  In the game setting, players hate being hypnotized by the vampire, charmed by the dragon, forced into servitude by the naga, enslaved by the mind flayer.  The most primary mode of interacting with the game world is the integrity of the player character and the player's ability to make decisions.  Free will and free agency are important.  Why else is there so much vitriol against railroading?  Taking control of a player's character as part of a horror theme can be highly effective.  What does the villain do with their new toy once they seize control of a character's mind?  The sky's the limit on the damage that can be done to the PC's in-game lives when the DM takes over, but know your group.  No mind games!

Mini-Review:  A Stranger Storm
It turns out there's an excellent short adventure that takes the themes of The Enemy Among Us and Loss of Control and runs with them - it's James Raggi's A Stranger Storm.  Let's talk about it!  (Like all my reviews, there will be spoilers…)

A Stranger Storm appears in the LOTFP Grindhouse Edition, in the back of the Referee's Book.  It's 16-17 pages and billed as an "introductory" adventure, though I would challenge that it could be run well by a brand new DM.  The structure is significantly different from most of the other offerings by this author.  Death Frost Doom, The Grinding Gear, Hammers of the God all describe site-based locations; this one features a combination of loose scenes and time-based events to move the action forward, and has a large cast of NPCs.

Here's the general synopsis: the characters are isolated in a remote inn and nearby village due to torrential downpours that are miring travel on the dirt roads; while isolated in this remote community, foul murders are happening, and it becomes readily apparent, when identical doubles of some of the characters begin to appear, that there are supernatural shenanigans afoot. The scenes tend to move between the inn, the village, the roads, and ultimately the nearby orphanage.  The players have quite a bit of agency on how they react to the discovery that not everyone around is how they appear.

The stars of the adventure are the new monsters - "changelings" - Weird Fantasy versions of D&D's doppelganger.  For all intents and purposes, they're demons in material form, here to sow confusion and chaos on their way towards murder.

Most folks will be familiar with the doppelganger; it's a dungeon-dwelling monster that can mimic the appearance and thought patterns of a humanoid, and seeks to replace them, slowly murdering it's way through the adventuring party.  The doppelganger has always presented staging problems for DMs at the table when a player has been replaced, and the author presents an interesting twist on the doppelganger conundrum that keeps everyone in the dark until it's too late - it's a really nice method for handling "changeling replacements".

Tying it back to the horror themes with demonic possession, you should start to see commonalities.  A flood of shape-changing demons breeds immediate distrust and paranoia once the characters and villagers catch on that people are being duplicated, murdered and replaced.  You can imagine interesting situations like John Carpenter's The Thing begin to develop, where the various people involved try to create tests to weed out the humans from the impostors.  There's also the Loss of Control theme, particularly if a player character was slain and the player later learns he's been carrying out the changeling's agenda for some time.

From A Stranger Storm
There's one other theme I really liked in the adventure - the Awful Choice theme.  A lot of horror is visceral and involves a man vs nature physical conflict - external forces - but as our man Friedrich N says, battle not with monsters, let ye become a monster.   What do the players do when they realize the nearby orphanage, which normally has 20 children, suddenly seems to have 21?  Has one of the escaping demons taken refuge hiding amongst the innocents, or is it a mistaken count?  Depending on whether the group had pioneered an effective way to identify the mimic, they could be in for a crisis of conscience and grapple with some ethical horror (or not - like the chap in the pic).

How would I rate this one?  I'd give it a 3.5 stars.  The swarm of demon changelings, the advice on using them, and a few of the set encounters are really a lot of fun, top notch stuff.  This is a great interpretation of the D&D doppelganger.  However, it's only a short introductory adventure tucked away in the back of the Grindhouse book; there are no maps to any of the locales, and it's fairly short.  Presenting adventures is all about information structure; sandboxes and site-based locations have evolved over 30 years; I'm not sure this hits on the best structure for blending events and scenes, but it gets the job done.  If you're lucky enough to own the Grindhouse edition already, you have a nifty little adventure to spring on your players that highlights some excellent horror themes.

Almost a 7th Level Blogger

Looking at Trey's Blogger Advancement table, I'm almost a 7th level blogger.  I just one need brave lurking reader to click the follow button, and then BOOM - I'll level up, roll another hit die, get a few more hit points, see if my saving throws improve, and then flip through the rule book to see what kind of awesome class abilities a 7th level Blogger gets.  (That's in the rule book, right, Trey?)

On a more serious note, thank you, Readers, who drop in from time to time to say 'Hi' or leave a comment - it really makes blogging fun.  If you have your own blog, and I don't know about it, please put a blurb here in the comments so I can check it out and put it into my feed reader.

One thing I'd ask - a call out to my fellow bloggers - take a look at how your blog works in feed readers like Google Reader.  There must be a setting that only submits a teaser to the feeds as opposed to the full text.  I read and scan enough blogs over the morning coffee, that I can't click through to all of them, so I'm sure there's lots of good content I miss because it doesn't make it into the feeds.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


A discussion of the movie, and using some of the ideas in your D&D game

Wow, I finally had the chance to see this one.  Most nights at House Beedo, by the time the various bedtime rituals are finished with all the kids, its way too late to start a movie.  95% of what we end up watching has to be kid friendly.  But the other night I got the kiddos to bed early and was able to catch REC 2.  Great horror movie - loved it.  (Warning:  Spoilers will follow).

REC and REC 2 involve twists on the infected zombie theme.  The protagonists arrive at an apartment building responding to a mundane emergency call, and shortly after they arrive, the building is sealed and quarantined by the government.  No one is allowed out.   It's been discovered that the building is ground zero for a virulent infectious agent that turns ordinary folks into rabid flesh-eating monsters, and the characters are isolated in this high rise apartment building while they try and piece together what's happening (and survive).  REC 2 picks up right where REC 1 ends off, and follows the exploits of a team of SWAT officers that enter the quarantine zone to escort a high-ranking doctor to find the source of the infection.

REC was remade in America as a movie called Quarantine; you may recognize the plot if you've seen the knock-off, but the Spanish originals are better.  One thing I really like about the two movies is that they take the well-worn plague-zombie genre and push it in some new directions; by the end of REC, there's some question whether the contagion is biological at all, and in REC 2 we're introduced to alternate theories that include demonic possession, fallen angels, and prisons of darkness - right in the wheelhouse of some recent columns here.  Yeah, that's the good stuff, brother.  So check them out.

Switching gears back to Dungeons & Dragons, there's a couple of nifty ideas that can be mined here for use in a game.  As REC 2 develops, there's the idea that a single demon is controlling all these infected people like puppets, and there are some really freaky things you can do with that.  Keeping with the demonic possession theme, an obvious choice is to have your own contagious form of demonic possession.  Imagine an entire village that's been corrupted; things look normal from the outside, but once you let down your guard, it's time for Children of the Corn.  A villainous entity that acts by co-opting innocent victims presents moral problems for heroic characters and logistic challenges tracking down the main host or carrier.  I'm sure we could brainstorm a few more "mastermind" monsters that could enslave humans and field a small army of disposable pawns while eluding identification.

I also like the idea of a spiritual versus biological disease, and worked up a version in the past.  Back when the zombie apocalypse first came to Gothic Greyhawk, after the party woke the dead during Death Frost Doom, I started working out details on how a ghoul plague would work.  The thesis went like this:  flesh-eating zombies from the horror movies are better represented as ghouls in D&D, and not the D&D zombie; characters bitten by ghouls should have a chance of contracting the plague - a curse called 'ghoul sickness'; the ghoul curse drives a victim towards cannibalism until they devolve fully into ghouldom.

In Gothic Greyhawk, the demon prince Orcus, as prince of undead, is the source for both the original vampire curse and the ghoul curse.  Ghoul sickness is a spiritual disease that corrupts the victim's soul and is the source of the ghoul's magical paralysis attack; the reason elves are immune to ghoul paralysis is because they're soulless mockeries of humanity (which you can play up more or less depending on the depth of your elf hate).

The original article on ghouls vs zombies and the ghoul curse is here:  The Ghoul, and a follow-up piece, Ghoul's Galore.